Women in the Data Center - NOT!

by Karen Riccio

Having attended Data Center World on and off over the past 25 years, I’ve noticed two overwhelming trends in the makeup of IT professionals: There are more and more gray and/or balding heads, and the younger and newer generation is growing in numbers—in both cases, predominantly male.

While this changing of the guard certainly warrants attention, the fact that women were few and far between at my first conference more than two decades ago and continue to be scarce today, is troubling on many fronts. I thought it might just be a figment of my imagination, but research from Deloitte Global helped prove my point ... and some.

Back in 1991, women filled 36 percent of IT roles. However, Deloitte predicts that by the end of 2016, fewer than 25 percent of those jobs in developed countries will be held by women. So, the gender imbalance is actually getting worse by the year.

Why? Aspects of the educational pipeline, recruiting and hiring, paying and promoting, and retaining all contribute to this gap.

Lisa Huff, a principal analyst for research firm Discerning Analytics, offered her perspective.

“When I graduated from college, only 11 percent of my class was women. That percentage has actually gone down over the last 30 years. I think there are many factors. One major one is that many women take off work to raise a family and find it very difficult to get back into the workforce years later when they’re ready. This is particularly difficult in technical fields like engineering and data centers.”

Huff is one of four panelists who will discuss "Women in the Data Center" (PL 7.1) at Data Center World on Tuesday, Sept. 13 from 9:25 a.m. to 10:25 a.m. She will be joined by Jennifer Cooke, research director for IDC’s Datacenter Trends & Strategies Group; Theresa Simpkin, head of the department of Lord Ashcroft International Business School for Anglia Ruskin University; and Donna Manley, IT senior director at the University of Pennsylvania.

Think about it, in high school or college, most women steer clear of math and science because their interests and strengths often lie elsewhere perhaps as a result of societal or parental pressures. In the UK, a 2012 survey showed that only 17 percent of girls had learned any computer coding in school; half as many as the boys. And, in the US, women only represented 18 percent of university computer science graduates in 2013, actually down from 37 percent in 1985. So, engaging and exposing girls in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects is paramount to having them pursue computer-related degrees and jobs later in life.

Once a woman actually decides on an IT career, an equally qualified man is twice as likely to be hired for a job based on a various studies from multiple countries. Maybe we can chalk it up to unconscious gender biases. If that’s the case, the technology will be hard-pressed to change “human” nature.

Huff’s offered a slightly different perspective.

“I think actually getting the job is rather easy if you are qualified. It’s the fitting in that can be very difficult. Many people think you get the job solely because you are a woman and may not give you a chance to show how qualified you really are,” she said. “My challenges have typically been relating to older co-workers in the data center that haven’t necessarily worked with many women and don’t really know how - or they think they need to treat women different than their male coworkers.”

That's spot on, according to Simpkin. "Sadly, the need to continually reiterate capability, particularly in a technical role, is more prevalent for women in non-traditional sectors.  Empirical research identifies that women have to continually prove their capacities to do a job, whereas men are often hired or promoted on an illustration of potential."

The Data Center World panelist from Anglia Ruskin University has firsthand experience.

"We know that women in non-traditional occupations face the issue of being too feminine to be deemed competent or too ‘masculine’ to be liked and therefore find it difficult to be accepted.  I’m naturally decisive, good at negotiation and take no prisoners when it comes to quality and achieving excellence," Simpkin said. "I’ve been criticized for not essentially ‘not acting as my gender dictates’ – women are socially acceptable when being consultative, acquiescent, and ‘soft’.  Operating in a more ‘masculine’ manner is often seen by others as being a threat to their role or competence.  Women in this situation can’t win despite the fact that the same behavior initiated by a man is seen more positively."

Finally, beyond pay and promotions, traditional personal roles for women often conflict with professional roles. According to the study, women in IT roles are 45 percent more likely than men to leave in their first year due to family commitments, maternity leave or workplace policies not suited to women.

"Organizational culture is often not conducive to supporting career progression for women in tech - not necessarily because of the individuals within the organization per se, but the accepted norms that have developed over time," Simpkin said. "Networks, advocate programs and other mechanisms designed to provide a desirable career trajectory are often not aligned to alternative labor characteristics (this is not just about gender, but also covers socio-economic factors, race, orientation etc).  This is a highly complex, socially constructed matter that has its roots in organizational structure, culture, social learning and unconscious bias."

There are no quick solutions or easy answers, but the panelists for “Women in the Data Center” will provide a forum for candid discussions between both genders on making data centers attractive to women and treating them as equals in the workplace.

"These matters are not just issues for women," Simpkin stressed. "The way in which organizations need to be structured, managed, developed and changed is not solely in response to gender issues – they are broadly based in response to a new managerial and structural paradigm and it makes sense to reinvent the DC organization with a view to better accommodating a range of voices to expand the potential labor pool.  The only way the sector will be functionally savvy into the near and distant future is to cultivate a highly responsive, capable and innovative workforce with a skilled and engaged pipeline of talent.  This means the labor pool needs to be broader, deeper and more resilient – absorbing individuals from all areas of the community."

Register for Data Center World today!